I hated the life jackets. They were unlike any kind I’ve seen before and demanded priest-like patience and the ability to complete a Rubik’s cube in less than 30 seconds. Adding to this challenging feat of physics was my giant, no, enormous parka I had decided to bring with me to Antarctica on a sponsored trip to the 7th continent. I felt over-bundled and silly as I boarded the Zodiac boat for my first true excursion in Antarctica, but what I didn’t know was that I would soon get an experience of a lifetime.
Leaving the ship on the inflatable boat, we skimmed over the water in search of something, anything. The expedition leader was just as curious as we the passengers were, glancing around in every direction to find something of interest. Bits of ice filled the water around us like ice cubes in a giant glass. Even with the sea of icebergs it was a beautiful, sunshiny day in Antarctica, a rarity at times. The sky was blue and the air possessed a certain crispness to it that I’ve never before seen. It was cold but not as cold as you think, temperatures hovering in the “why are you wearing a giant parka?” range. Within just a few minutes though we got our first break, a giant breathing mass on a nearby iceberg.
A solitary crabeater seal was snoozing on a bit of floating ice, with a couple of friends nearby. The Zodiac moved in closer until the boat was touching the ice, causing the seal to wake up but apparently we didn’t do enough to cause any real alarm. The giant mammal looked at us for a while before falling back into a deep slumber. It was amazing, to be so close to one of these beautiful animals and to feel like you’re part of the landscape and not just an intruder. It reminded me of the Galapagos, where the animals famously have no fear of humans allowing extraordinary access, a back stage pass for adventure travelers.
We stopped a couple of more times to observe some seals, Weddell and Crabeater mostly. But in the distance I could see something on the water, or rather I could see the water itself transform. Our expedition leader approached the mass and before I knew it we were there, on the outer edge of the great Antarctic ice flow.
The ice extended for as far as I could see, a great flat prairie of nothing but ice. It was humbling to think that right there, at that spot was one of the largest masses of ice on the planet. Then the boat driver suggested the improbable, what I never dared believe to be possible. He landed on the ice flow and hopped out, inviting us to join him. Some of the other passengers were hesitant, worried about areas of weak ice but I was excited. I jumped out of the boat at the first opportunity and set foot not on Antarctic soil, but on the ice, the frozen water that so defines any Antarctic experience.
Looking into the horizon I felt as if I was standing on a cloud, the white seemed to go on forever. Cautiously I walked around, my boot breaking through the top crust of the ice a couple of times. The area seemed dead to me, nothing moved and there wasn’t even a sound. Everything was still and silent and eerily mesmerizing. There I was walking on the water in Antarctica when just a few days before I had been in my warm and comfy Washington, DC home watching the news and drinking coffee. I was awed by the experience; once again shown the power of travel and why I’m so driven to seek out these experiences.
As beautiful and solitary as the ice flow was, it wasn’t terribly exciting and so the group left to find more examples of marine life, seals, penguins and a hope for whales that never came to pass. I always enjoy wildlife, but that wasn’t the most important thing I did that day. For me, standing on the ice that encapsulates the Antarctic experience was the perfect primer to the trip, an introduction to the lonely but shockingly beautiful continent. It wasn’t planned, few great travel experiences are, but my time walking on the water in Antarctica is a memory that will forever define the trip in my mind.